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Irony and Theatricality in Chekhov’s T h e S e a G u l l Carol Strongin The play’s ending suggests melodrama: Nina, the innocent country girl seduced and abandoned by the worldly writer Trigorin , delivers an emotional speech about faith and endurance and bearing her cross before she runs out into the stormy autumn night. Treplev, the sensitive young man who loves her and has lost her as he has also failed in his attempt to become a great writer, tears up his manuscripts, throws them under his desk, and leaves the stage. Now, as Treplev’s mother, the actress Irina Nikolayevna Arkadina, and her companions enter and resume their game of lotto, the sound of a gunshot is heard off-stage. Dr. Dorn leaves to see what has happened and “returns in half a minute” to report that a bottle of ether has exploded in his medicine bag. Arkadina breathes a sigh of relief as she remem­ bers her son’s suicide attempt of two years before. The lotto players resume their game and Dorn casually leads Trigorin, Treplev’s successful rival in love and art, toward the front of the stage, drops his voice, and speaks the last lines of the play: “Somehow get Irina Nikolayevna away from here. The fact is, Konstantin Gavrilovich has shot himself. . . .”1 The curtain falls and the audience, as well as the many directors, actors, and critics of The Sea Gull, all assume that Treplev is dead. But what if Chekhov has himself left the actual success of Treplev’s second suicide attempt ambiguous? To assume that Treplev is successful in that attempt is, of course, to go along with the traditional view of the play and its place in the development of Chekhov’s dramatic art, for according to that view, as it is expressed by a critic like J. L. Styan, The Sea Gull is Chekhov’s compromise with nineteenth-century theatre practice in many respects. Although we see neither event, the young female lead is 366 Carol Strongin 367 seduced and the young male lead does commit suicide. The play is still built upon several intense and potentially melodramatic relationships. . . . Chekhov has not yet fully managed to arrange his characters to undercut melodrama. . . . Although Treplev shoots himself offstage rather than in full view like Ivanov, the effect of an over-strong theatrical statement remains as potent... .2 However, as Styan goes on to say, “When in 1900 Chekhov saw Hedda Gabler’s theatrical suicide, he declared to Stanislavsky, ‘Look here, Ibsen is really not a dramatist’,” a remark which Styan interprets as Chekhov’s declaration “against the artificial in drama.”3 Yet it may be possible that Chekhov had already made that declaration in 1896 with the writing of The Sea Gull, a play which itself deals with the nature of art, particularly in terms of the theater. Chekhov called The Sea Gull a “comedy in four acts,” and it may very well be that Nina’s final speeches are implicitly undercut, while the success of Treplev’s second attempt at suicide is left deliberately ambiguous. The evidence for such a reading rests not only on Chekhov’s use of the word “comedy,” itself the subject of years of interpretation and debate, but, more importantly, on the structure of the play—a structure which is essentially circular, grounded as it is on the continual ironic parodying of the characters’ self-conscious poses which undercut the authenticity of their words and actions. To begin to establish the possibility of a more deeply ironic reading of The Sea Gull, it is helpful to recall Chekhov’s wellknown pronouncement on what he thought the task of the modem theater should be: The demand is made that the hero and the heroine should be dramatically effective. But in life people do not shoot themselves, or hang themselves, or fall in love, or deliver themselves of clever sayings every minute. They spend most of their time eating, drink­ ing, or running after women or men, or talking nonsense. It is therefore necessary that this should be shown on the stage.4 Although implicit in this statement, made while Chekhov was working...


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pp. 366-380
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